Abstract

What better way to ring in the new year than by listening to a bunch of extremely abstract computer music? I can’t think of one.

My copy of The Csound Book is ten years old. (It was a review copy sent to Keyboard when I was still on staff.) Tonight I copied the contents of the book’s two bind-in CD-ROMs to my hard drive. It’s packed with Csound orchestra and score files, most of which I’ll be able to open and render without trouble. (Some may have been rendered using audio files that aren’t included.)

Also on the disk are .mov audio files, which I guess predate the mp3 format. I can listen to lots of extremely abstract music. Now playing: Jean Piche’s haunting “Incantation,” which features vocal synthesis and bells.

Much of the music is slow-moving, spacious, and rather thin. A cloud of tone may hang motionless for several seconds before you realize that something is slowly changing. Above all, this is not pop music! It’s not hyped up to keep your pulse pounding. It’s not compressed to jump out of the speakers. There is no beat.

I’ve checked out a few of the new mp3’s on the Csound website — music created by students in Richard Boulanger’s classes. Most of it is loosely in the dance instrumental category: 4/4 percussion and aggressive timbres, with a few exotic colors that say, “Yeah, I’m studying computer music. You got a problem with that?”

If I were Dr. Boulanger, I’d give my students one simple instruction: If your piece is in 4/4, you get an F. No exceptions. But that’s just me. I’m sure they’re great kids, and they’re doing what they care about. I’m just an old grouch. I can’t help thinking they’re missing something, though.

When I was a kid (younger than that), my father took the family on excursions to art museums. I grew up on abstract expressionist painting. So I have no trouble processing and appreciating abstract music. I do it visually.

These recordings remind me, also, of my very first experiments in electronic music. I borrowed Tom Darter’s ARP 2600 synthesizer and Vic Trigger’s TEAC 4-track tape deck, and did some pieces. I wish I still had those tapes! (Not that I have anything to play them on.) When MIDI came in, I started making music that had, you know, chords and beats and bass lines and melodies.

I think maybe I lost track of something important, somewhere along in there. Abstraction is good. It’s clean. It doesn’t impose any particular expectations on the listener. And it isn’t in a hurry. The older I get, the less interested I am in hurry. Where are you going? Why not be where you are?

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